Microsoft Research Shanghai

While in the US there is a stigma about COVID and Asian people, here in China it is the other way around: foreigners are potentially contaminated and should be avoided. I was reminded of that today. I had made a coffee appointment with a mentee that I have in Shanghai. We agreed to meet in person, and we had decided on a time and place the next day. This morning he texted me that his wife is not ok with him meeting me. Apparently, the school his kids go to has the requirement that when you meet with foreigners who have been in the country for less than 21-days you have to report that. His wife didn’t want to deal with the consequences of that. While I understand the concerns and I didn’t take it personally, it does make you pause and think once the tables are flipped.

Today’s workday started out early. I’m still waking up early, 3:30am, do email and around 7am I jumped on a conference call, followed by a quick shower at 8am and a 40min subway ride to get to the office. I like to take my showers hot and I made the mistake of wearing a light grey polo shirt that is very absorbent. The problem with that is that any perspiration is very visible, and it made me feel very self-conscious in the hot subway. I was especially worried that people would be concerned that I had a high fever and tried to avoid me. I did get some strange looks but that may also have been my imagination.

The subways are busy. The only sign of COVID is that folks are more diligent about wearing masks.

Finding my way around Shanghai is an interesting problem. I’m obviously very used to using Google maps. While Google maps works, it isn’t very accurate here in China. That is because Google maps improves with more users and there aren’t many of those here because most Google services are banned. It’s really only foreigners that use it because their cell phone traffic uses home-roaming and goes back to the USA. I have been resorting to Apple Maps instead, which is ok, but the real app to use here is Alimaps from Alibaba. The draw back with that app is that it’s all in Chinese but with enough patience and taking screenshots that you can translate with a separate app you can get by.

Alimaps instructions on how to get to the Microsoft lab. Its easier to decipher than it looks.

I knew my trip to the lab coincided with John Hopcroft’s visit. John is a luminary in our field and a Turing Award winner. He is on the Microsoft Research advisory board, and he has been advising the Chinese government on improving their academic education system. He and his wife had just been released from quarantine the day before and they were already touring around. Since I was an honored guest as well, but one of significantly lower stature, I got to participate in all the private conversations with John. It was interesting to hear how he had been working with the Chinese government officials. I did get the distinct impression that some of the meetings with officials he described were more about the prestige of meeting with a Turing award winner than his specific opinions or insights.

It turned out that John knew Robbert van Renesse very well. Robbert and I had the same PhD advisor, Andy Tanenbaum, so we had a connection there as well. I had never met John in person before and I knew him primarily because of the automata and compiler textbooks I had to study in grad school.

Following the private meetings, John did a fireside chat with the lab. The lab has about 20 Microsoft Researcher’s and another 20 or interns/collaborators. They are all very young and early in their career and most of their questions were about career advice and John’s opinions on doing pure Research. Serendipity played a big part in his answers. Exposing these young researchers to luminaries in our field is a great motivator for them.

John Hopcroft’s fireside chat. Folks are wearing masks out of a courtesy to John or perhaps because they were afraid to be close to foreigners who were just released from quarantine?

I was invited to lunch with John and the leadership team but I skipped that so I could take my Chinese lessons. That went around the lab like wildfire and folks were quite perplexed that I prioritized my Chinese lessons over meeting John for lunch. I was ok with that. I had already met John earlier that day and I did not want to break my stride of daily Chinese lessons.

In the afternoon I got to do my own version of a fireside chat. More a coffee side chat for just the Microsoft employee and interns. They asked me lots of questions about how Azure works, what are our challenges and opportunities, what are the industry challenges, what problems they should work on, etc. The folks asked very intelligent questions and were surprisingly well informed about what’s going on in the US.

The view of Shanghai center from the lab. Air quality was deteriorating quickly. AQI was 122 at that point.

Over dinner, with a small subset of the lab’s leadership team, the conversation steered more to what I wanted to accomplish over the next few months and the kind of problems that I think are worth solving. Next week I’ll get to repeat all of this in Beijing. It feels like this will be a great and productive summer.

One thought on “Microsoft Research Shanghai

  1. It’s always interesting when in China (or Japan) to experience what others must feel like as outsiders in the US. I’m not surprised folks are hesitant when I think about it, but that hadn’t occurred to me before reading!


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